When you lead children to feel the beauty of sunrise and sunset, to be sensitive to the beauty of flowers and to the majesty of thunder and lightening, when, in short, you develop in them the aesthetic sense, you are doing far more for them than if you were to give them the sex education which has now become customary to give to children at the earliest stage and which is often carried to absurd lengths.
Rudolf Steiner. Sexuality, Love and Partnership: From the Perspective of Spiritual Science.
In my last blog post, I said,
The closed and secretive nature of Steiner schools is an environment where the predatory or unscrupulous may take advantage of children. All environments with children risk potential problems, but the detached Steiner schools with a sense of their own spiritual superiority and unwillingness to allow outside scrutiny and criticism pose a dangerous habitat. I hope I do not have to point out that I told you so.
Within 48 hours, Scottish newspapers were reporting the trial of a music teacher at a Steiner School in Scotland for alleged abuse of a 13 year old child. Now, whilst such terrible events can potentially occur in any environment where adults come into contact with children, I would suggest that the fact this has taken place in a Steiner environment is not coincidental.
Significantly, the newspaper report suggests the school made significant errors in its duty to protect children. The employee had already been convicted twice for the sexual assault of young boys. The school had asked Birch to undergo background checks and he had refused. They employed him anyway. Steve Birch’s home was found to contain child porn on mobile phones and DVDs. He has admitted the charges.
I posted this story on the Quackometer Facebook page. I received a number of comments that suggested that I was overstating my case. Tom said, “Well of course, there’s never been sex offenders in the public system”, followed by Karin who said,
I’m all for criticism based on facts but this just seems like a desperate stretch to vilify Steiner schools for something that doesn’t really have anything to do with them being Steiner schools, but what was a really bad descision made by certain individuals.
So, I think it is worth going into some detail why I believe Steiner Schools present a particular challenge in child protection and why the authorities ought to be concerned.
- Steiner schools are not open about their anthroposophical aims towards children, their pedagogical methods, the occult foundations of their philosophy and their relationships to the wider anthroposophical community. They are embedded within an esoteric organisation that by its very nature is coy about disclosing its inner business with the outside world. If there were internal problems, they are likely to be entirely dealt with internally. Rudolf Steiner made it explicit about how his teachers should mislead parents and authorities about the goals of their teaching because “if that connection were made official, people would break the Waldorf School’s neck”. Former teacher, Grégoire Perra describes how parents were misled about the spiritual nature of the school and officials misled about teaching practices. An organisation founded on deceit is unlikely to be in the best position to protect children.
- Part of the Steiner pedagogical approach is to encourage strong relationships between teachers and pupils. A child may be assigned the same teacher throughout their schooling. Perra describes how the school he worked in deceived inspectors by swapping in specialist teachers for particular lessons during inspections and children were encouraged to ‘play along’. The natural protection afforded by a child having many adult relationships within a school is weakened. Perra also discusses his experiences in a Steiner School where it was ‘an open secret’ that a teacher was involved in a long term relationship with a pupil and living with her.
- Steiner schools have been successful in the UK in lobbying for exemptions from the normal standards of control and inspection. Independent Steiner Schools are not inspected directly by Ofsted, but by the specially created Schools Inspection Service in the belief that specialist inspectors were needed to appraise the special nature of Steiner Schools. However, inspectors appear to have very strong links with Steiner schools and so may not have the necessary distance required to objectively assess and raise issues. The new state funded schools have been set up under the Academy or Free School programme and so exempt from local authority control. In the case of Glasgow, questions should be asked of how the inspectors failed to spot staff were working with children without having undergone child protection background checks.
- Teachers at Steiner Schools need not be qualified. The majority of teachers in Steiner Schools in the UK do not have a recognised teaching qualification. This reduces the barriers and checks that might prevent paedophiles entering the payroll.
- The are consistent reports of how Steiner Schools have a laissez faire attitude to problems such as bullying within schools. As I showed in my last post, the role of the school is spiritual midwiffery – teachers are there to help children’s spirits incarnate as they grow. Karmic influences need to be worked out and if a child is being bullied then intervention may interfere with the child’s destiny. We see similar attitudes to disease where fever and illness are supposed to help children develop and incarnate. If harm is done, then it was meant to be. This does not give confidence that inappropriate relationships will be dealt with in a decisive and rational way.
- Precisely what is taught in school is difficult to understand due to the secrecy. Steiner, like most subjects, had bizarre and occult views of sex. As the quote at the start of this article says, Steiner viewed sexuality as a force to be suppressed by the development of an aesthetic sense. A child could be protected from the sexual world by an appreciation of flowers. Such naivety plays into the sexual predator’s hands.
- And, in general, I would suggest, their sense of spiritual superiority, clairvoyant insight into human nature, and aloofness from the rest of society blinds them to obvious dangers. With the case of Jimmy Savile, we have seen recently in the news how people who present themselves as working for the good of others can use this to hide abusive behaviour.
In short, whilst none of this means that any particular Steiner School will be harbouring paedophiles, these factors may well make them rich hunting grounds for psychopathic predators. Individual schools no doubt have teachers that care deeply about such things. And, I would hope that Glasgow is a one-off. However, caring deeply is not enough. If Steiner Schools are going to expand in the state sector without action to mitigate these risk factors, more child abuse might well just be on the of the Steiner time bombs sitting under the Department of Education.
Today, the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship have issued a statement. It’s actually quite startling.
Historical Responsibility: a Statement
Our schools and settings are aware of the historical responsibility that attaches to all organisations working with children or vulnerable individuals. In addition to being fully compliant with current legislation and constantly attentive to the needs of the children in their care, we believe that schools should be open to the honest appraisal of past practice that may have fallen short of today’s standards.
It is SWSF policy to urge any school or setting that may become aware of historical allegations to contact their local police immediately.